The view from Grandpa’s wood shop was spectacular. It looked over the crescent shaped Bay of Malbaie and the long sand bridge, from which the picturesque fishing town of Barachois, Gaspé County proudly takes its name. Beyond the bay, a steely blue sky framed the boundless grandeur of the Atlantic Ocean. If this wasn’t enough to stir the soul; in the distance you could clearly see the towering Percé Rock and the Beluga-shaped Bonaventure Island.
Two miles up the Coteau Road, leading into the heartland of the Gaspé Peninsula, was the southeastern extremity of Canada’s magnificent Boreal Forest. Grandpa’s “back woods” was the edge of an immense conifer forest occupying over 3.2 million square kilometres, or over 75% of Canada’s total forest area.
Grandpa was well connected, but not in the modern sense. He and his family were integrated into the natural order of life: the ocean, the land and the forest. The beams and wood for his house came from Grandpa’s back woods allotment of 7 acres. Nature supplied almost everything for the good people of Barachois, for which it was respected. The largest trees, known as wolf trees, were carefully selected for harvesting to clear the forest canopy for the smaller trees to flourish.
In this seemingly limitless forest, Grandpa knew the names and characteristics of all of the Boreal trees: the conifers, such as the narrow-crowned pine, fir and spruce; and the broad leaf trees including the trembling aspen, white birch and willow. Within this abundant setting, the axe was king.
After thousands of years of use, axes and adzes were still the tools that allowed Grandpa to chop, split and hew wood. The woodsmen of his era had many types of axes, all impeccably ground and honed to a razor-sharp edge.
Grandpa’s collection included an American pattern-felling axe; a double bitted or throwing axe; and his pride and joy, an ancient European-style goose wing axe.
Handles were fashioned using local ash. Each man had his own handle template, best suited to his own hand and strength. Grandpa liked the doe foot pattern and always had an extra axe ready, in case of breakage. A variety of saws were used in conjunction with axes to fell timber and cut it into manageable lengths. The two-man cross cut saw was used to fell large girth trees and the smaller buck saw was used to cut logs into more manageable sections.
To square a log Grandpa snapped a charcoal line (like a chalk line) to define the two sides. He would get up on top of the log and with his double bitted axe chop or score to the charcoal line. He used the broad axe to square up the sides.
With the adze Grandpa worked backwards to cut off the bark and top dome. He would turn the log using Peavey hooks (moveable hooks on a long pole) and repeat the same procedure on the under side to produce a square beam with few tool marks.
Our forefathers split more wood with axes than they cut with saws. They split logs with wooden mauls (wedges) and large mallets known as beetles. Green or unseasoned pine, cedar and birch, were fairly easy to split. The result would be narrow pie shaped boards, suitable for use as clapboards. The split rail fence surrounding his farm was also made using mauls.
Building frames were made from hemlock beams. The walls were solid square log construction using mortise and tenon, and dovetail joinery methods.
Once the framed structure was up, the joinery was pegged. Grandpa was then able to lay a shingled roof, constructed of riven or split lathes, and covered over with cedar shakes or shingles. The cladding for the exterior consisted of pine or fir clapboards pegged to the frame.
Grandpa also made the windows and the double gate-hinged doors. At almost every step the axe was used to complete the buildings. As it was difficult and expensive to buy square cut iron nails locally, all overlapping boards were attached to the frame using wooden trunnels (tree nails).
Grandpa’s froe was a long, dull knife-like tool with a right angle handle. He used it with a wooden club for splitting shingles from a large block of cedar, cleaning up with a spoke shave.
He also used the froe to “rive” or split hardwood “billets”, 2″ square lengths of green or unseasoned birch, to produce laths for internal partitions and roofs.
Another tool Grandpa used was a gutter adze, a smaller, gouge-like version of the carpenter’s adze. He used it to scoop out small hardwood trunks to fashion rain gutters, and to make hollowed-out water troughs for cattle and sheep.
Grandpa’s skills touched the lives of the people in the village from cradle to grave. He made rocking cradles and coffins, not surprisingly on short notice. During the winter, when it was impossible to dig graves, the parish priest would ask Grandpa to build the casket, and to collect and deliver the body to the church morgue, by horse and sleigh, to await the coming of spring. For the poor of the village Grandpa would perform this service without charge and, in lieu of a cloth shroud, would often provide birch bark and moss, put aside during busy summer days. This was, in many ways, a fitting end to a life spent on the edge of a great forest.
In the next article we will return to Grandpa’s wood shop and take a more in-depth look at his work bench, devices used for gripping and holding stock, and measuring and laying-out tools, used to make wooden implements and furniture.